Md. wants to demolish Supermax as obsolete at 14

State shifts from lockup to rehabilitation in prison

October 16, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Supermax prison, a $21 million structure that houses death row inmates and other hard-core troublemakers in the heart of Baltimore, could be torn down less than 15 years after its construction as the state shifts its philosophy on corrections.

"We do hope to get rid of Supermax," state corrections Secretary Mary Ann Saar told Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other officials yesterday. "It does not serve our purpose programmatically or any other way."

The austere prison keeps inmates in confinement 23 hours a day and offers no space for counseling, drug treatment or education, services that Saar and other corrections experts consider vital to helping criminals return to their communities.

Saar offered a synopsis of her plans for the maximum-security institution during a meeting of the state Board of Public Works. In an interview later, she said she hopes to transfer the roughly 290 inmates there to a new prison being built in Allegany County - possibly within 18 months.

"It's easier to manage them in a new facility, and it's easier to manage them a good distance from Baltimore, for a lot of reasons," she said.

While the fate of the orange-brick building, which opened in 1989, has not been decided, Saar said her preference is to raze it.

"If we have the money, I hope to bring it down," Saar said. "If we don't have the money, we should rethink its use."

Saar's announcement was greeted by surprise among some who were unaware that the relatively new building was considered obsolete and by praise from others who said the prison was an expensive mistake and a relic of a failed trend.

"Didn't we just build it? It's a bolt out of the blue for me," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, in an interview. "I didn't realize that Supermax was either inadequate or outdated."

But Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, called the Supermax lockup philosophy an "overreaction" made by many states in the 1980s and 1990s that is proving to be bad public policy.

"It was just a frenzy. It was, `How can we lock a lot of people up, and how can we make it more unpleasant?'" he said.

"People are coming out of supermaxes like animals," Schiraldi said. "They've lived on 23-hour lockdowns for decades, and we expect them to come back into communities and live like human beings. They [the prisons] are of questionable value."

The maximum-security facility in Baltimore, formally known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, was once considered an improvement over the violence-prone South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, which it replaced. A guard had been stabbed to death in 1984.

At Supermax, peace is maintained with strict measures: Concrete beds are fastened to the floors, and inmates are not removed from their cells until they stick their arms through food slots in doors to be handcuffed.

Still, the building had problems from the start, said former state corrections chief Bishop L. Robinson, on whose watch the prison opened.

The U.S. Justice Department demanded some "expensive changes," Robinson said, to meet demands for programs.

"I think it's overly expensive to operate. The design doesn't lend itself to modern penological programs," Robinson said. "It's probably outlived its usefulness."

Robinson said he doesn't think the building can be salvaged.

"I don't know of any way to rehab the facility because it's a maximum-security prison," he said. "It's one of those things: We were following the trend at the time to incarcerate the most difficult prisoners in a very secure and difficult environment."

Supermax's rapid demise stands in marked contrast to its neighboring corrections building, the castle-like state penitentiary, which was built in 1811 and remains functional after many modifications.

Employment figures for Supermax were unavailable yesterday, but more than 200 guards and other staff members worked in the building when it opened, according to news accounts at the time.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the North Branch Correctional Institution under construction in Allegany will be technologically advanced. This year's state budget contains $33 million to build the second of four 256-bed pods at the prison site and to begin planning for a third.

Maximum-security inmates, including 10 now on death row at Supermax, will be moved when the second pod is completed, Saar said.

The North Branch construction comes as the state is dealing with a prison bed shortage, housing roughly 24,000 inmates in facilities designed for about 21,000.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he hopes to help relieve the crowding in part through better coordination and planning between the state's juvenile services department and the prison system so that younger nonviolent criminals aren't unnecessarily incarcerated.

"What we are trying to do is bring a focus and a comprehensive plan to each population," Ehrlich said.

Added Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.: "Once a child gets into detention, the chances are they will go deeper into detention."

Schiraldi, of the Justice Policy Institute, said Maryland cannot afford to keep building prisons. Instead, the state should reduce the demand for space by changing sentencing policies for nonviolent offenders

"A quarter of our inmates are in for drug offenses," Schiraldi said. "Does that really make sense?"

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